The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Most people who are bound up and caged in a prison wagon regard their captors with an understandable degree of doubt. Elrin was unlike most people. He was no fool, of course. He saw the way the guards looked at him. He knew they’d have gutted him and delivered him in pieces for the dead letter. Alone, he was easy pickings. The inspector may have had him captured and locked up, but iron bars were the very thing that kept him safe. That and the Inspector’s artful command of the Calimskan guard.
Elrin trusted Kettna on a deeper level. He didn’t know why for certain. Perhaps it was because she’d given him a chance. While many of his recollections were troubling, the more Elrin probed the shadowed recesses of the past the more he remembered. Amongst the horrors, good memories bubbled up from the dark and released their light. Elrin remembered that Kettna had trusted him with a secret to find her lost love. The Inspector showed Elrin respect where most Calimskans wouldn’t have spared a gob of spit. That wasn’t nothing. If Kettna had a plan with this illusion, he had to let it play out. It felt like the right thing to do. For all he knew the sorceress had allies in the Cauldron who could help them escape.
Minni was right too. Elrin shouldn’t have blurted out the warning earlier. Not that anyone had heeded it. Inspector Kettna had served him a stern look fit to silence his outburst, so she must have known. Mustn’t she? The sorceress’s mind was a marvel. All this was such an elaborate ruse, she must have had it planned before she left Calimska. Elrin was the bait. All Inspector Kettna needed to do was dangle the promise of his bounty. The trap had the guards snared as soon as the wagon crossed the Cauldron’s brim. Their heavily armed escort would chased off by the local miscreants and run to the safety of Castle Roost atop the city. It was a perfect plan and no one would get hurt.
Trust was one thing, but above all else, Elrin wanted to know the truth. He adjusted his focus to interrogate the illusion alongside the veracity of the real world. If he understood what the guards saw he could help Kettna with her plan. Ahead, the illusion portrayed a quiet cobbled square. The street in was clean and welcoming. A little way beyond was a tempting vision of the upper ring road, Scholar’s Circuit. The grey walls of Castle Roost perched like a stone cap atop the proud golden head of the city. The illusion tickled Elrin’s heart with comfort even though prison was all that waited ahead.
“What are you waiting for?” Captain Malek grinned at the site of Castle Roost, his crooked nose and bruised eye making him look all the more sinister. Get your horses moving, Driver! Every man’ll taste the shine from this bounty. The Guildmaster’s more than generous, you’ll see.” Malek rode to the front of the column and turned his steed in a tight circle. “Form up! All ahead! March!”
The driver cracked his whip and the horses hauled the wagon into the square that was not empty at all. Rough cut thugs and heavies lurked in the dead-end mire of filth, grinning like crocodiles. The guards didn‘t understand the depth of the Cauldron’s waters. Nor did they prepare for how hot it boiled. There were so many of them; humans and fiercer kin too. Gang signs adorned bared flesh and grim frustrations painted dirty faces. They skirted the edge of the square like a ragged row of teeth in a monstrous slack-jaw.
Behind them a four storey shambles of a structure had fallen across the street to devour its much sturdier neighbour. As if in envy of the building’s straight lines and proud facade, the shambles of architectural decay savaged a hole in its neighbour’s freshly lime washed frontage. There the head of the shambles feasted, its parasitic body stretched in a spill of broken bricks and rotten beams, concealing what was once an exit. The only way to Castle Roost was choked tight. Worse still, the body of a slain red dragon sprawled across the shingle roofs, its broken wing unfurled like a murderous flag.
Why would Kettna lead them to this barbarity? It seemed at odds with her nature. This wasn’t a rabble of heavies to put a scare into the guards and chase them off their turf. These cutthroats came to kill with knives and hatchets. Their cruel meat hooks and nail-spiked posts didn’t come to bargain. This malicious trap couldn’t be part of the Inspector’s plan. It simply couldn’t.
Before Elrin could raise his voice to warn Kettna, a hand of arrows took flight. All five struck the wagon driver. His life departed without so much as a final gasp.
Kettna’s ashen face told Elrin everything. She mustn’t have planned it this way. Could the dead letter be so valuable to make murderers of everyone? The sorceress’s distress did nothing to weaken the illusion. Not a single guard noticed until Kettna screamed.
“It’s a trap!” she called to the guards near the wagon. “To arms!”
The illusion weakened and Elrin sensed a flux of energy issue from a cowled figure rising atop the corpse of the red dragon. A crimson beam of magic shone from the mage’s mirror into the square and the illusion vanished, revealing the truth of the prison convoy’s predicament.
The city guards closed into a defensive ring around the wagon and Malek formed his mounted cronies into a line. The corrupt captain was no longer the picture of a warrior in control. His eyes flared in shock, darted over the ever more numerous adversary.
“My, my,” said a pox scarred woman, emerging from the mob of rogues. She held herself like a soldier and walked like a sinner. Unmatched armour and unkempt clothes put her a long time out of military service. The crowd of cutters and shifters waited on her every word.
“Old Agnus’ll be pleased.” The rogue leader clicked her tongue. Her gold tooth stole a ray of sunshine. “Aunty might even forgive you, Inspector. For true, it’s a glorious bounty you bring us. Everyone knows this no name’s worth a mountain of shine, but Captain Malek’s head will please Aunty most. The Guildmaster’s dog has been a bad boy of late.”
“What the hell’s going on?” Malek yelled at Kettna. “You made a deal with Bloody Agnus? She’ll chew you up, girl.”
“A woman’s word ain’t nothing you’d understand.” The leader of the rogues trained her crossbow on the captain. “Pipe down or chew my bolt, dog. Us ladies need to have a natter.”
“Who are you?” asked Kettna.
“I’m what’s keeping you and these bucket heads alive.”
Elrin shifted his focus, sifting truth from illusion. Out of all before them, this woman leading the ambush was the only false representation, a mouthpiece for a puppeteer. The mage atop the dragon was pulling all the strings.
“Listen sharp and think hard, bucket heads,” said the illusory rogue. “Do as I say and no one gets hurt. Open the cage and hand over the no name. Aunty Agnus wants him, the sorceress plus the Guildmaster’s pet captain. Whole. Not a piece nor person missing. Everyone else can bugger off and do your damn job. Protect the city from the dragons. Any man who stays in the Cauldron is dead. Clear?”
“Hold your positions, men!” yelled Malek. “I say it’s high time we thrash this rabble. First to kill Sue Pox get’s double her bounty.”
Two footman with more grey in their hair than the others dropped their spears and backed away from the prison carriage, hands held high in surrender.
“Look at these munty bastards.” Sue Pox spat on the ground in disgust. “Pathetic cowards.” Heavy-set thugs at the perimeter seized the guards, took their swords and looked to Sue, waiting for her say so.
“Let ‘em go, Sue!” ordered Captain Malek. “They’ve got families.”
“That so? Then do what you’re told. No widows need weep the moon from the sky. Open the damn cage and stand your dogs down!”
“I’ve got my orders, Sue. We all do. I can’t ignore a dead letter.”
“You mean you can’t ignore the skaggin’ bounty.” Sue gave a nod to her heavies who pulled out knives, ready to bleed the life from the captured guards. “Last chance. Open the cage and surrender.”
“The Guildmaster will share the no name’s bounty with you,” offered Malek. “Think of the riches.”
“Ash and arses he will.” With a second nod from Sue, the rogues cut the captured guards down, severing their pleas for mercy with malign satisfaction.
The Calimskan guards were ready to break ranks and avenge the killing, stepping out and thrusting their pole-arms at the mob.
“Hold your positions!” ordered Malek.
“What is it with you idiots?” Sue didn’t care for an answer, her scarred face screwed up in a rage. “That blood’s on you! Each and every one of you. So no more asking. I’m taking.” Sue, shot a crossbow bolt into the air. It wailed like an alley cat then exploded in a puff of white smoke.
The street boiled with violence. Rocks and cobbles came flying at the guards, pounding shields and helmets. Malek and his horsemen swatted at the swarming mob, batting them away with the flat of their blades. The horses kicked out and swung left and right, trampling any who came close. The footman guarding the wagon held off the attackers for a time, coordinating their use of sword and shield with the long reach of halberds and spears.
Inevitably mathematics won out. What the mob lacked in training and discipline, they made up for in numbers, rushing the guards in a fatal tide. The surge of humanity broke upon the guards, forced forward by a cruel sea of killers. Dead-eyed gangers shoved skinny wretches to their death and challenged naïve youths to prove their blood worthy. One guard fell and then another beside him. Enough for a grey-skinned half-orc to carve through and climb the wagon for Kettna.
The sorceress reached for her blade, but couldn’t draw it out before the thug had dragged her off the wagon and into the mess of fighting. Elrin grasped through the bars to no avail. He could do nothing but watch, agonising over the escalating violence and his inability to stop it. Kettna fought back and unleashed a flash of magic light in her assailant’s face. The half-orc stumbled and dropped her, clutching his eyes. A guard speared the blinded brute in the stomach, but it wasn’t enough to kill him. The half-orc tore the spear free and with a bellicose roar stabbed the life from the owner in a red-eyed frenzy. Leaping into the fray on inhumanly stout legs came a leather-backed monster covered in warts. The toadman seized Inspector Kettna from behind while a cutthroat covered her head with a hessian sack then hauled the sorceress deeper into the melee.
“Damn it, Elrin! Are you deaf?” yelled Minni through the clamour of the battle. “Hurry up and get over here. I got it open.”
“But how did you—” he began to ask.
“How d’you think?” Minni grinned, slipping a set of lock picks into her boot.
“But, your wrists are bound.”
“Not anymore.” Minni waved her free hands in Elrin’s face to demonstrate.
There was no longer a binding on Elrin’s wrists either. “I didn’t even notice. Kettna released us from the spell instead of saving herself.”
“So make her a saint.” Minni grabbed his hand. “You ready to run?”
“I’m not running. We have to save Kettna. Didn’t you see the monsters drag her off.”
“She’s not one of us,” argued Minni. “Leave the toffee-nosed mage to her own intrigues. She’s not our problem.”
“I couldn’t have been more wrong. Kettna didn’t know this would happen. It’s not her fault. We have to help her.”
“In case you missed it,” said Minni. “I wasn’t on Sue’s protection list.”
Elrin glared at her in disbelief. “But, she needs help.”
“Kettna locked us up, Elrin! She’s in cahoots with Bloody Angus. Are you blind?”
“No. I see the truth.” Elrin cringed at how pretentious it must have sounded. “This wasn’t Kettna’s doing. The mage on that dead dragon is responsible for the illusion.”
There was no point explaining it. Minni couldn’t understand Elrin’s second sight. Hells, even he didn’t understand these awakening powers.
“Wait for me here. It’s not safe outside the cage.” Elrin pushed passed Minni and out of the wagon, determined to save Kettna from the thugs in the mob. He’d stepped from a cage into the chaos of battle many times before. The screaming of the wounded, the clash of steel, the crunch of bludgeons doing their brutal work — it roused a hunger inside him. The smell of blood and sweat quickened his instincts.
As soon as Elrin landed on the cobbles a flanking guardsman was struck by a hatchet in his shoulder, spraying blood into the air like a red fan. The hatchet went so deep, the rogue who buried it there couldn’t get it out. Another guardsman came and bashed his shield into the attacker. Still the rogue would not let go of the hatchet. In a final act of determination, the dying guard tackled the rogue, sinking a dagger into his belly to even the score.
The guard still standing abandoned his friend in death’s vice. Another breath, another opponent. There was no time for grief. The fallen were dead and the standing balanced on the fragile whims of the gods. The guards fought on, keeping the mob from the wagon, not realising that their precious bounty had busted loose.
Elrin gripped his dagger, resting his thumb atop the bloodstone pommel. His heart quickened.
Master. Came the voice of the Ungx Vohun, constricting Elrin’s temples with urgency. Protect my kin. Vaal Vohun grows weak. Battle as you must!
Time thickened with a cascade of grim memories. The contorting tentacles of Ungx Vohun reached for him. The nightmare of unending trials in the demon arenas assaulted Elrin, but here in the real world he didn’t have Queen Raznu to make him forget. Ungx Vohun wanted Elrin to remember all. Waves of red-drenched recollections crashed over him, engulfed him, and swept him away.
Elrin drifted in a sea of blood. That of his enemies, his friends and most of all, the blood was his own. The red sea beat in time with his heart. How many times had he died? A hundred times? A thousand? It was all too macabre to bear.
A crooked spear of purple lightning flashed and lit the horizon of Elrin’s mind. When the thunderclap hit, he landed back in reality. Just at the moment Minni’s boots hit the cobbles beside him. She took the sword from the dead guard and engaged a lanky ruffian who foolishly rushed forth. The youth grinned and swung a bat scored with his gangland victories. Minni was too quick on her feet. The bludgeon went wide and she made certain to wipe the smile from his face — and a few teeth too. Her fist knocked the wind out of his guts and the pommel of her sword smashed into his greasy mug three times for good measure. The ruffian was out cold before he collapsed on the cobbles. Minni enthusiastically handed the ganger’s graffiti covered bat to Elrin like it was a prize won at a full moon fair.
At first Elrin’s hand would not accept it.
Useless weight. I am all you need.
Ungx Vohun compelled Elrin with more than just a suggestion. The tentacled god of the dagger insinuated control of Elrin’s body, probing and contorting the depths of his mind. The moment Elrin resisted the compulsion, the tentacles of control disappeared in an inky cloud of unease.
“You’ve gone pale as a sheet.” Minni caressed Elrin’s cheek. “Don’t worry, sweet. This mongrel’s not dead … I don’t think.”
“I’m fine.” Elrin frowned as he hefted the bat, uncertain if his words were true. “We have to hurry or Kettna’s gone. They took her that way. Towards the mage on the dead dragon.”
“What Mage?” Minni’s face wrinkled with doubt. “Look, we can’t fight through the thick of the mob. No way. No how. Let Captain Malek and his bucket heads hold them off. Just stay close to me.” Minni locked Elrin’s hand in hers again and gave him a wink. “I’ll get you out of here.”
Why wasn’t Minni listening to him? He wasn’t a weakling that needed to be rescued.
“The no name’s getting away!” yelled a guard, running to seize Elrin’s arm.
While turning to confront the guard a rock hurled from the mob struck Elrin over the head. A sudden veil of night made his eyes heavy and his legs weak. Elrin teetered for a heartbeat then plummeted into a crimson vision.
Calimska disappeared. Elrin was back in an arena confronted by a riot of bloodthirsty demons in pitched battle. Within the thorny thicket of infernal warriors came the cries of a woman. She was slung over the shoulder of a brutal archdemon who mercilessly shoved through the mob, heading for the arena’s exit.
Rooted centre of mind was the anchor of this realm. Ungx Vohun scrutinised Elrin with a hundred eyes while his tentacles traced blood sigils on the silver tower.
Master. You must save her.
With a dagger in hand and a god urging him on, Elrin strode into the worst of the fighting. The bat crushed bone and spirit but Elrin’s dagger drank to his enemies end. Each monster that came at him fell aside. None could best the speed of his dagger as he sliced a path to the captured woman, but who was she? A deep yearning insisted he must know her even though her visage evaded him. Who else did he know in the company of demons? It could only be Queen Raznu. Elrin would kill every monster here to win his beloved Queen’s approval.
The bloodstone dagger flashed like red lightning, striking the infernal fighters dead before they knew what was upon them. Elrin was the Storm Bringer, Xer Quilosh. Blood rained before him and soon the demons took note. They cowered at his approach and begged for mercy. There was no quarter in the arenas. All fell in a grim harvest.
Victory was all too easy until a scaly demon stepped in his way, shaking her sword at him and yelling something unintelligible. All Elrin could hear was blood pumping. His own blood roared like a furnace while the blood of the dying rattled as cold as winter’s last empty breath. Above all the lifeblood of the demon before him thundered like a dragon and stoked a primal hunger inside Elrin’s chest. She was a challenge worthy of his training.
The demon parried and dodged Elrin’s attacks. She was faster than him, stronger too. Elrin probed for weakness and baited her with every martial tactic General Ostanoch had taught him inside the bloodstone. Not even Ungx Vohun’s reflexive manipulations of the magic dagger could catch the demon off guard. Her fighting style was like nothing Elrin had encountered in the arenas, yet for all the advantages the demoness possessed, she could not breach Elrin’s defences either. They danced to the tempo of her fury, which blazed hotter with every attack he made. That would be her downfall. Elrin stoked her rage with a flurry of strikes then feigned breathlessness to tempt the demon into a closing riposte.
The demon took the bait and lunged. Elrin used her momentum to his advantage, wrestling her to the ground where he could finish her. It was a mistake. The point of the bloodstone dagger only kissed her straining neck before the demon flipped Elrin on his back. The demon’s knees pinned his arms and the flat of her blade came in hard, swatting him on the forehead. Her free hand had a time of it too, slapping him while she screamed. The demon seized Elrin’s head and forced him to look at her. This was the end. She’d make him watch as she tore his heart out.
Elrin stared at her raging face. A rainbow of scales shone around two orbs of intense yellow. Her eyes bore into him, twin suns chasing the nightmare shadow from his mind. The truth dawned on Elrin with cold shame and he gasped.
Minni slapped him again for good measure and prodded his forehead in frustration. “What in the five hells is wrong with you?”
A red trickle ran down Minni’s neck, still bright from the dagger’s kiss.
Her blood is strong. Kill her.
Ungx Vohun tried to wriggle Elrin’s arm free, committed to Minella’s demise.
“Enough!” Elrin drove his will like a hot lance to purge Ungx Vohun’s monstrous desires from his body. He squeezed his eyes shut and wished he’d never unsheathed the cursed blade in the first place. “I’m your Master. Do as I command!”
“I don’t think so,” scoffed Minni, prying the bloodstone dagger from Elrin’s grip. “Ain’t a man alive to claim that over me.”
Elrin opened his eyes. “No, no! Not you, Minni.” The sigils on the dagger glowed in Minni’s hand, drinking the bloody remains of the slaughter. “Oh, Gods! I’m so sorry! What have I done to you?”
“Don’t mind me.” Minni wiped the blood from her neck like it was nothing, but her face was a knot of anger. “Look around. You made a fine mess.”
Elrin’s stomach clenched with remorse as he saw the catastrophe of dead and wounded strewn around them. The rogues of the Cauldron had separated Captain Malek and the Calimskan guards from the prison wagon and driven the battle deeper into the square. Irate locals who witnessed Elrin’s rampage hurled stones and abuse from a safe distance. The mage on the red dragon pointed her finger at him and Elrin’s knees felt weak with the weight of guilt. Ever more the mob gathered closer, appearing from shadowed doorways and climbing through windows to make Elrin pay.
“You’ve outstayed your welcome, no name.” Minni helped Elrin to his feet and sheathed the dagger back on his belt. “Time to go.”
“We’ve got to save Kettna,” said Elrin, involuntarily touching the bloodstone on the dagger’s pommel.
Vaal Vohun! You must save her!
Minni knocked Elrin’s hand away from the dagger. “Hells we will! How much blood is that bitch worth to you?”
“That’s not what I mean. It’s the bloodstone sword. Qarim said—”
“Ash on Qarim and his pet wench! Kettna’s gone. Gone! You hear? We’ve got to run or we’re dead!”
As the mob closed around them, Elrin took Minella’s hand and ran, dreading what the monster he had become might do if he stayed.